Duff returns as quick-fire Toon frustrate Villa
Newcastle 3 Aston Villa 1 Damian Spellman DAMIEN DUFF made a timely return to action last night as Newcastle moved into the top 10 in the Premiership after a blistering start was enough to see off Aston Villa at St James' Park.
Former Villa midfielder James Milner fired the home side into a fifth-minute lead and Kieron Dyer made it 2-0 with a well-placed header within two minutes.
Debutant Ashley Young pulled one back on 25 minutes and had it not been for the brilliance of stand-in 'keeper Steve Harper and the help of the woodwork, Martin O'Neill's side could not only have been back on terms, but comfortably ahead by the time referee Howard Webb signalled the end of an agonising game for the home fans among a crowd of 49,201.
O'Neill, heavily linked with the vacant job at St James' before Glenn Roeder was appointed, headed back to the Midlands scarcely able to believe he was doing so empty-handed after substitute Antoine Sibierski made sure of the win at the end.
Roeder welcomed back long-term absentees Titus Bramble and Duff as well as Steven Taylor, who returned from suspension as former Villa midfielder Nolberto Solano served a one-match ban.
Duff had made just one appearance as a substitute since undergoing knee surgery the same month and returned to action just days before Ireland's Euro qualifier against San Marino.
New signing John Carew, playing his first game since December 6, had an early chance to impose himself on the Magpies' back four from Olof Mellberg's long free-kick, but Bramble beat him comfortably in the air to clear.
The hosts' early pressure paid off when Milner made the most of Gavin McCann's slip to cut inside on to his left foot before smashing home his fourth goal in as many home games.
The winger turned provider on seven minutes as the Magpies extended their lead. His corner was cleared only as far as Nicky Butt, and when he fed the ball out wide once again, Milner crossed for Kieron Dyer to guide an unstoppable header past Thomas Sorensen.
Villa rallied as they searched desperately for a way back into the game.
Villa grabbed a lifeline seven minutes later after they won a corner down the right. Gareth Barry's cross flicked off a Newcastle head at the near post and although Parker cleared it off the line, Young fired home the rebound to mark his debut with a goal.
It took a superb save from Steve Harper, deputising for the injured Shay Given to preserve his side's lead when Young recycled another Barry corner on 32 minutes.
The visitors might have been level seconds later when, after Carew's shot from a Stilian Petrov corner had been blocked, the ball ran to Gavin McCann, but the former Sunderland midfielder skied his effort. But the Magpies needed the help of the woodwork on 36 minutes when Carew met Barry's cross with a firm header, but was denied by a post.
Villa picked up exactly where they had left off after the break.
Full-back Wilfred Bouma got the better of Milner down the left to send a teasing cross to the far post for Agbonlahor but Harper pulled off a superb save.
Carew did have the ball in the net from a second-half corner but the strike was ruled out for a push on substitute Sibierski.
Newcastle's confidence had ebbed away and the situation was not improved by the growing tension from the stands.
Carew made way for Patrik Berger on 69 minutes and split the home defence within two minutes of his arrival, but Young was once again denied by Harper.
Villa continued to dominate, but Newcastle were at last providing greater protection for Harper and they made sure in injury-time when Duff and Martins combined to set up Sibierski, who applied a stylish finish.